A New Day Dawns

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

At last, we have reached the end of our story of the formation of American Methodism. The story goes on, of course. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, right up to our present day, the Methodist Episcopal Church went on, breaking apart over this issue and that – most sadly, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and the deaths of 600,000 Americans, including many Methodists — and then finding new ways to come together. As we’ve seen, the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church merged in 1968 in Dallas, TX, to become The United Methodist Church. So there is much more we could tell. But we will end our story with the death of Francis Asbury on March 31, 1816.

Bishop Asbury’s Journal ends on Thursday, December 7, 1815, some 3 ½ months prior to his death. That day, the elderly and infirm bishop, for whom travel was becoming increasingly more difficult, simply wrote, “We met a storm and stopped at William Baker’s, Granby.” That was his last entry.

The previous month, on November 9th of 1815, the great man recorded this in his Journal: “I die daily – am made perfect by labour and suffering, and fill up still what is behind. There is no time or opportunity to take medicine in the daytime, I must do it at night. I am wasting away with a constant dysentery and cough (ED: In a letter to a friend around this time, the bishop wrote of “hawking up blood,” symptoms of the tuberculosis that would eventually take him).”

The General Conference referred to in my last entry, was scheduled to meet in Baltimore beginning May 2, 1816. Bishop Asbury, in rapidly declining health, was determined to be there. But it was not to be. Francis Hollingsworth, writing in 1821 “A Short Account of His Death,” records, “In this expectation he was, however, disappointed; the disease with which he was afflicted, terminating in the consumption (ED: tuberculosis), made such rapid progress as to baffle the power of medicine, and to prostrate the remaining strength of a constitution already trembling under the repeated strokes of disease, and worn down by fatigue and labour. He appeared, indeed, more like a walking skeleton than like a living man.”

Bishop Asbury preached his last sermon in Richmond, VA, on March 24, 1816, one week before his death. He preached upon Romans 9:28; “For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.” Thus, closed Asbury’s public work. Being too weak to walk, the bishop was carried from his carriage in a chair and placed on a table set up for the purpose. He spoke for over an hour.

Still trying to get to Baltimore to the General Conference, he eventually made it to the home of his friend, Mr. George Arnold, in Spotsylvania, VA. He was traveling with his good friend, Rev. John Wesley Bond. The night of March 30-31 was a difficult one for the bishop. Here’s more from Hollingsworth’s account: “About eleven o’clock on Sabbath morning, he inquired if it was not time for meeting; but recollecting himself, he requested the family to be called together. This being done agreeably to his request, Brother Bond sung, prayed, and expounded upon the twenty-first chapter of the Apocalypse (Rev. 21). During these religious exercises he appeared calm and much engaged in devotion. After this, such was his weakness, he was unable to swallow a little barley water which was offered to him, and his speech began to fail. Observing the distress of brother Bond, he raised his dying hand, at the same time looking joyfully at him. On being asked by brother Bond if he felt the Lord Jesus to be precious, exerting all is remaining strength, he, in token of complete victory, raised both his hands. A few minutes after, as he sat on his chair, with his head reclined upon the hand of brother Bond, without a struggle and with great composure, he breathed his last, on Sabbath, the 31st day of March, in the year of our Lord 1816, and in the seventy-first year of his age; — after having devoted to the work of the ministry about fifty-five years, forty-five of which were spent in visiting the cities, villages, and wildernesses of North America; during thirty of these he had filled the highly responsible office, and conscientiously discharged the arduous duties of general superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”

Bishops’ Monument, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Baltimore, MD

Francis Asbury’s body was buried in the family cemetery of Mr. Arnold in Spotsylvania. However, by request of the Conference, it was moved to Baltimore, and eventually placed in Mt. Olivet Cemetery near the site of Lovely Lane Chapel, which had given American Methodism its birth. On this lot, the Trustees of Lovely Lane erected the “Bishops’ Monument” which was dedicated June 16, 1854. It is a monolith of Italian marble and measures 18 feet. Near this monument rest the remains of Bishops Francis Asbury, Enoch George, John Emory and Beverly Waugh and his wife. In recent years the ashes of E. Stanley Jones and Mabel Lossing Jones, leaders of the modern church and world missionaries, were interred in the lot.

Before he died, Francis Asbury learned that Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke had died a year earlier on board a ship in the Indian Ocean. America had been but one nation in which Coke ministered. He was again financing his own mission trip. In their different ways, Coke and Asbury had modeled and enforced an itinerant, missional form of ministry that they insisted was the primitive, apostolic, New Testament form.

With the deaths of Coke and Asbury, the Methodist Episcopal Church’s bishops were now all American-born and with new institutions in formation, the MEC looked forward to a new day. The MEC had grown rapidly from its beginnings in the 1740s under the leadership of the people whose stories we’ve told, people like Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge, Philip William Otterbein, George Whitefield, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright and the others we have met in telling this story.

It is my hope that in reading their story, and in traveling this fall to the places where they lived, worked, and ministered, we may “learn from the past, to influence the present, and thereby shape the future.”

(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury,” Vol. III)

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